Q&A – Chris Waterhouse

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2017

Natalie Daniels speaks to Chris Waterhouse having recently been appointed Chair of the Packaging Society about trends and priorities in the packaging industry 

Tell me about your background and career to date.

I am actually a marine engineer by training. I started an apprenticeship as a marine engineer working for Shell Tankers and subsequently worked for Birds Eye Walls in Gloucester, UK, looking after fridges and utilities before moving into production engineering. I helped commission some of the first Magnum ice creams in the world – with many samples tried and tested. From there, I became more involved with packaging and I went to work for Gulf Oil, being responsible for blending, filling and packing lubricating oil before moving to Hampshire to undertake a role in strategic project management and supply chain design for Zeneca Agrochemicals, UK, in the 'weed killing' department. Zeneca subsequently merged with Novartis AgChem division to form Syngenta, where I became Head of Packaging for Europe, Asia Pacific and South America. In 2007, I set up packaging and supply chain consultancy, iDi Pac, UK, where I am currently Managing Director.

What has been your biggest career highlight?

Working on some of the biggest product launches, creating strategies to develop a brand new look in the packaging systems, as well as bringing together all the processing systems. Another major highlight was setting up my own business – it is the fear of the unknown, making a success of it and proving that your ideas work. I am hugely proud of that and of becoming Chair of the Packaging Society at IOM3. 

What does your work at Idi Pac involve?

My role is to create new opportunities for us as a business – new markets and partnerships. One of the other things I enjoy is mentoring younger staff by giving them opportunities to grow their experience and knowledge. It is difficult to recruit qualified packaging staff, so it is great to see when people mature from students through to valuable employees. It is always nice to see people grow in confidence and develop in the world of work. 

What are some of the main challenges facing the packaging industry?

In the UK, there is currently no degree in packaging. This is a huge concern, although there are some post-grad courses available. We get in product and industrial designers who have an interest in packaging and try to fit them into new areas of packaging. Fundamentally, it is an ageing workforce, so the people in the earlier years are now looking to retire. It raises the question of where new young people will come from. One of the things we are trying to do within the Packaging Society is to encourage more young people into the industry, demonstrating the importance, size and significant contribution to the UK economy. We need to get more individuals involved and start showing people that packaging is interesting, exciting and, more importantly, can offer a lifelong career. 

Another challenge is the fact that packaging can often get bad press. People focus on the coffee cups, landfill and food waste. They don't necessarily talk about the good things – packaging preserves, protects, promotes and importantly meets the needs of the consumer – from pharma to food to electronics to car parts. 

What elements make good packaging?

The most important factor is it has to meet a need. It could mean looking aesthetically pleasing on the shelf, create a protective outer or save cost and waste – it depends what sector you are looking at. If you take cosmetics, then it is all about a lifestyle element and making it look high-value. Whereas, if you are looking at vegetables on the shelf then it needs to be cost effective, keeping a product fresh for longer. The other big issue is the growth in e-commerce – the packaging may be ideal for the retail environment, but when it is transported through the e-supply chain, the suitability may be tested.

Where does sustainability fit into the priorities of a packaged product?

I use the word sustainable in two ways. One as in eco, which is an admirable thing to consider. But, equally, sustainablility has to apply to the business and that is about creating value through sales, reduced cost and shorter lead times. It is a massive part of what we do. 

Where does the demand for packaging currently lie?

Everywhere. There is a lot more going into e-commerce – it is a very big, growing area. I think in future there is going to be a lot more focus on pharmaceuticals and smarter packaging. Smart packaging is catching up with ideas and using packaging as a medium to carry information using codes and NFC tags. These smart packaging designs will be able to carry more detailed and user-friendly information, providing an alternative way to deliver relevant data. I also think food packaging and preservation is an incredibly hot topic. With around seven million tonnes of food waste in 2012, it is a massive issue. It is not as simple as saying 'A banana has a skin, why does it need a bag as well?' 

You are currently Chair of the Packaging Society at IOM3. What are your main priorities?

The world of packaging has changed a lot over the years. A lot of the reasons for joining the Society 10–15 years ago were based on knowledge and networking with other peers in the industry. Now, you can do those things through social media and the internet, so the relevance and reason for joining is different. We are looking to focus on updating the member package, making it more relevant and becoming the home of packaging professionals. We want to make the younger members of the design and product communities aware of the careers available in packaging. I am trying to create that engagement and awareness of the value of packaging and the size of the industry and show these individuals who haven't previously considered packaging as a career option to become more engaged and excited by the opportunities in the industry. 

You work with pharmaceutical, agrochemical and petrochemical companies. What are the main trends of packaging in these industries? 

The pharmaceutical and agrochemical business are quite different. There are a lot of important regulations and it tends to be more 'aggressive' in terms of product safety. The labels can be massive and hold a lot of information. In terms of trends, the really big area in pharmaceuticals is the demand for more medical devices such as syringes and inhalers. Patient adherence is also very hot, trying to ensure that medicines are taken at the right time, in the right quantities but also ensure that it is safe, and in some aspects, child resistant and senior friendly. In pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, it is also about accessing new markets that previously have not been core to the businesses. For instance, targeting countries such as Russia, India and China – they are very different in terms of the packs you deliver. If you look at India and China, the amount of money people have to spend is growing, but rather than taking generic local products, they want Western products, which cost more. There is a whole issue around changing the pack sizes to smaller packs to reach these markets otherwise the packaging costs become too expensive relative to the product. The other trend is personalisation of medicines – it gives consumers connectivity with a brand and/or patient. It becomes 'your product' rather than a company’s product. Once you start connecting people with items – there is a certain ownership and responsibility. 

What can we expect to see in the next five years?

E-commerce is going to grow. One of the biggest challenges we face is understanding the two separate supply chains – retail and e-commerce. How do we make the transit packaging such as the standard brown cardboard box, into something that creates a memorable 'retail' experience for consumers? At the moment, people just open a parcel and immediately think about getting rid of the packaging. Next thing is intelligent packaging and the development of these to make a consumer's life easier. Finally, the focus on food waste is going to get ever more prevalent, as well as changing the idea of a throwaway culture.